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Fact-checking the fifth Democratic debate

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders started the debate sparring over foreign policy and campaign finance reform, but ended the night on a friendly note (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

MSNBC aired the fifth Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 4, a showdown between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).

Not every statement could be easily fact-checked, but following is a list of 12 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.

“[Americans are] worried about the future of their kids, and yet almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.”
— Sen. Bernie Sanders 

Sanders is relying on an outdated statistic. The numbers changed over the summer, as Sanders has sometimes acknowledged. But in this debate, he seems to have lapsed into an old talking point.

Sanders is relying on the research of University of California at Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez,  who had once concluded that the top 1 percent accumulated 91 percent of all income gains from 2009-12. But then when the numbers were updated in June, for the period ending in 2014, the new calculations showed that the top 1 percent captured 58 percent of total real income growth. “The recovery from the Great Recession now looks less lopsided than in previous years,” Saez said.

Moreover, there are limitations in Saez’s data, which tallies wages, taxable interest and dividends, rental income and so forth. Social Security and unemployment benefits are not counted. Neither are government transfer payments, such as food stamps or veterans benefits. The data also does not include noncash items, such as employer-provided health insurance. Lastly, the impact of income and payroll taxes are not part of the calculations, even though the rich pay most of the taxes — and some lower-income workers actually receive payments such as the Earned Income Tax Credit that offset all of their federal payroll and income taxes.

In other words, the statistics show part of the income picture — essentially the wages. They do not necessarily show everything that Americans receive to help them pay for the things they consume, be it food stamps (for the poor) or company-provided health insurance.

“The idea that I would dismantle health care in America while we’re waiting to pass Medicare for all is just not accurate. … I helped write that bill [the Affordable Care Act].”
— Sanders

Sanders exaggerates when he says he helped write the Affordable Care Act. He wrote only one amendment after he had to withdraw a proposal to create a Medicare-for-all-type single-payer system.

The American Health Security Act of 2009, introduced by Sanders during the health-care bill debate, proposed a national health insurance system that would be administered by states and follow guidelines set on a federal level.

Sanders’s new health-care system would have eliminated existing federal health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, and would repeal state exchanges as set up through the ACA. It would create a whole new health insurance system with new quality-control methods, a new standards board, and more. That’s why critics say he had proposed to “dismantle” the ACA.

Sanders withdrew that bill after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) initiated a procedural move requiring the Senate clerk to read all 767 pages of the amendment — which would have taken eight to 10 hours — and, thereby, halt the Senate health-care debate.

Then, Sanders turned his attention to inserting a community health center provision into the ACA, as an alternative to his 2009 proposal. This provision vastly increased health-care access for low-income and underserved communities, increasing the number of patients who receive primary and dental care, mental health counseling and low-cost prescription drugs. It also funded new centers and improvements to existing centers.

Sanders’s push for the community health centers helped convince some Democratic lawmakers who believed the bill didn’t go far enough to help rural states, where such centers are vital health providers. In the end, Sanders voted in support of the ACA.

“I will look into it [releasing transcripts of her speeches]. I don’t know the status, but I will certainly look into it.”
— Hillary Clinton

Clinton has certainly been looking into it a long time. The Washington Post has repeatedly asked the campaign to release copies of Clinton’s paid speeches — most directly and pointedly for the last two weeks.

The Post specifically made the request on Jan. 23 and then again on Jan. 24. The request was renewed on Feb. 4, the morning of the MSNBC debate.

Other news organizations have asked for copies as well. The silence has been deafening.

“I went to Wall Street before the crash. I was the one saying you’re going to wreck the economy because of these shenanigans with mortgages. I called to end the carried interest loophole that hedge fund managers enjoy. I proposed changes in CEO compensation.”
— Clinton

Clinton tends to overstate the significance of her visit to Wall Street some months before the crash. ProPublica obtained a video of the 28-minute speech and said she “steered a middle ground” to the business executives gathered at the Nasdaq stock exchange on Dec. 5, 2007.

As ProPublica put it:

Clinton gave a shout-out to her “wonderful donors” in the audience, and asked the bankers to voluntarily suspend foreclosures and freeze interest rates on adjustable subprime mortgages. She praised Wall Street for its role in creating the nation’s wealth, then added that “too many American families are not sharing” in that prosperity.
She said the brewing economic troubles weren’t mainly the fault of banks, “not by a long shot,” but added they needed to shoulder responsibility for their role. While there was plenty of blame to go around for the spate of reckless lending, and while Wall Street may not have created the foreclosure crisis, it “certainly had a hand in making it worse” and “needs to help us solve it.”

Clinton said she would consider legislation if the voluntary proposals were not adopted. But when her ideas were not accepted, neither were her five proposed bills. All but one had no co-sponsors — and no Senate committee took action on them. She played little role in a major housing bill that became law in 2008. And her bill to curb corporate compensation also went nowhere.

“Boeing and GE and other multinationals … pay zero taxes.”
— Sanders

This is a very complex issue, subject to fierce debate, because companies generally do not disclose their tax liability. But while some might escape paying federal income taxes, these companies do pay all sorts of other taxes, including property, sales and employment taxes. In 2012, General Electric says, the company paid $3.2 billion in income taxes worldwide, including in the United States, and paid more than $1 billion in other state, local and federal taxes.

“I had the privilege and the honor of chairing the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. And it is interesting to me, you know, Republicans give a lot of speeches about how much they love veterans. I work with the American Legion, the VFW, the DAV, the Vietnam Vets, and virtually every veterans organization to put together the most comprehensive piece of the veterans legislation in the modern history of America. That’s what I did.”
— Sanders

Sanders touts his record as chairman of Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, leading the charge to pass the comprehensive reform bill to address wait time problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health system. But he has faced criticism from veterans groups for not paying attention to the issue as soon as the scandal erupted in April 2014.

In April 2014, whistle blowers revealed delays in accessing health care and manipulation of wait time data at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. The allegations rocked the VA and ultimately led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Some veterans groups still point to Sanders’s comments the month following the revelation of problems in Phoenix. During a May 15, 2014, hearing, Sanders said:

“The point I want to make is that when you are dealing with 200,000 people, if you did better than any other health institution in the world, there would be thousands of people every single day who would say ‘I don’t like what I’m getting.’ And we have to put that all of that in the context of the size of the VA.”

During an interview on CNN later that day, Sanders said: “Did the delays in care of these people on the secret waiting list actually cause these deaths? We don’t know.”

Then, Republicans on the Senate VA Committee wrote a letter urging Sanders to hold more oversight hearings to hold VA leaders accountable. “At the beginning of the 113th Congress, the minority staff provided your office with a number of possible oversight hearing topics on ongoing issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA),” the letter said. “To date, none of the hearings we requested have occurred. In fact, during this Congress, the Committee has held only seven oversight hearings, which did not even begin to address the issues facing the Department.”

Sanders ultimately worked with his counterparts in the House and Republicans in the committee to work out a compromise VA overhaul bill.

“If I could, let me just say that of course it has to change. It has to change. And that’s why I have put forward a plan to do just that. And it’s been judged to be the toughest, most effective and comprehensive one.… And my plan, Paul Krugman, Barney Frank, a lot of experts who understand what the new challenges might be, have said I am exactly on point, and the Wall Street guys actually know that.”
— Clinton

Ah, this line again. We can count on Clinton to repeat it whenever she talks about her Wall Street plan. But, as we have noted before, she exaggerates the endorsements of her plan.

Yes, some experts have found her plan to be more comprehensive and effective than Sanders’s. She’s correct that Krugman and Frank have supported her proposal (and Frank actually advised her on drafting the plan).

But Clinton and Sanders have both gotten support from a range of PhD economists, former and current government officials, and industry and think-tank representatives who have endorsed one plan over the other’s. They both received criticism from a range of experts, too.

“Our goal there, in my view, is to work and lean strongly on China to put as much pressure [on North Korea]. China is one of the few major countries in the world that has significant support for North Korea, and I think we got to do everything we can to put pressure on China.”
— Sanders

This is a very unoriginal thought; indeed, it has been the dream of every American administration. The hope is that China will push its client state to halt its nuclear ambitions. But China always disappoints. China views North Korea as a useful buffer state between South Korea. Moreover, China insists it does not have the leverage over Pyongyang that Americans appear to believe.

Moderator Rachel Maddow: “Your campaign has now been criticized for its operatives essentially impersonating culinary union members wearing union pins in Nevada, and the Nashua Telegraph has complained recently that you falsely implied in an advertisement that they had endorsed you when they did not.” […]
Sanders: “We did not suggest that we had the endorsement of a newspaper. Newspapers who make endorsements also say positive things about other candidates, and to the best of my knowledge, that is what we did. So we never said, never said that somebody, a newspaper endorsed us that did not. What we did say is blah blah blah blah was said by the newspaper.”
Maddow: “Just to follow up on that, the title of the ad in question was ‘Endorsement.’”
Sanders: “But that was only for — that was not to be on television. That’s an important point. That was just something — as the secretary knows, you put titles on ads and you send them out, but there was no word in that ad, none, that said that those newspapers had endorsed us.”
— Exchange during the debate

Maddow is referring to a recent Sanders ad, indeed titled “Endorsement,” which implies that two New Hampshire news outlets the Nashua Telegraph and the Valley News endorsed him in the Democratic primary. The outlets have not endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate. The Sanders campaign edited the ad after fact-checkers pointed it out. (Here’s a link to the original ad.)

A narrator says in the ad: “From postal workers to nurses, he’s been endorsed for real change.” Then, the words “endorsed by” flash next to two organizations that endorsed Sanders. Then the words “endorsed by” disappear next to the Nashua Telegraph’s quote, which reads: “He is not beholden to Wall Street money.” The words “endorsed by” appear again when the last outlet’s name — the Valley News — is flashed, along with the quote: “Sanders has been genuinely outraged about the treatment of ordinary Americans for as long as we can remember.”

The problem: The Nashua Telegraph and the Valley News did not endorse Sanders. In fact, neither outlet has endorsed a Democrat in the primary. As our friends at PolitiFact and found, the quote by the Nashua Telegraph was pulled from a May 2015 editorial praising Sanders. The quote by the Valley News was from a December 2014 editorial encouraging Sanders to enter the race.

Sanders said in the debate that the campaign “never said that somebody, a newspaper, endorsed us that did not.” That’s not correct; the first version of the ad did say Sanders was “endorsed by” the Valley News. The words “endorsed by” was later removed. But the ad still implies that all four organizations cited in the ad have endorsed Sanders — after all, the ad is about endorsements.

“I did hope that the TPP [TransPacific Partnership], negotiated by this administration, would put to rest a lot of the concerns that many people have expressed about trade agreements. And I said that I was holding out that hope that it would be the kind of trade agreement that I was looking for. I waited until it had actually been negotiated because I did want to give the benefit of the doubt to the administration. Once I saw what the outcome was, I opposed it.”
— Clinton

Clinton is being disingenuous when she claimed that she had “hope” that the final deal would be good. She had been such a cheerleader of the agreement that CNN counted 45 times when she had touted the deal before she opposed it.

“This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field,” Clinton said in Australia in 2012. “And when negotiated, this agreement will cover 40 percent of the world’s total trade and build in strong protections for workers and the environment.”

Maddow: “The EPA, the Department of Education, the Commerce Department, oops — is — is there a department of government that you would get rid of? Or is there a whole new one that you would create?” 
Clinton: “The answer to both of those is no. I’m interested in making what we have work better.”
— Exchange during the debate

Interestingly, President Obama proposed to eliminate the Commerce Department and the Small Business Administration and replace them with a more agile agency to handle trade issues. In 2012, he proposed to create what he called a “secretary of business.”

But the idea went nowhere.

“They are retroactively classifying it.”
— Clinton

The Fact Checker recently did a deep dive into the issues surrounding Clinton’s private email server, in particular how “top secret” information could have ended up in an unclassified email system. The subject is more complex than just retroactive reclassification. Intelligence officials believe the State Department has been sloppy in the way it handles sensitive information, in that a determination is made only after a document is requested for public release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Please read our full report for more information.

See Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during the MSNBC Democratic debate in New Hampshire

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, pose for a photo before debating at the University of New Hampshire Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

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